Human Remains Identification Process Explained By Washoe County - KTVN Channel 2 - Reno Tahoe News Weather, Video -

Human Remains Identification Process Explained By Washoe County Medical Examiner's Office

Authorities say remains found in a residential septic tank north of Virginia City in August 2013 are those of George Benson Webster, who went missing more than 30 years ago. 
Authorities say the home's owners found his remains during a routine check of the tank in 2013. 
We talked to the Washoe County Medical Examiner's Office to find out more about the process to identify human remains that can be as old as the ones found in Storey County.
The Medical Examiner's Office covers a huge area across Nevada and northeastern California.
"The caseload that we manage for other agencies and other counties literally doubles our workload," said Dr. Ellen Clark, Chief Medical Examiner and Coroner for Washoe County.
When they get remains that are as old as the ones found in Storey County, it can be a difficult process to identify them.
"There are effects that are produced by post-mortem intervals that is the 30-year timeframe, as well as the exposure to the chemicals and the conditions of the septic tank," Dr. Clark said.
In a case like this, all of the experts are involved. They all work together to perform what's called an "unidentified remains profile."
"There are all kinds of components included in that, and all kinds of studies that we do, such as photography, X-ray, obtaining of evidence, including any kind of potential DNA or serological evidence," Dr. Clark said. 
They also look at things like dental records.
"We'll do dental examinations on the deceased persons as well as obtain the records from potential victims, and we compare those," Dr. Clark said. "We've obtained this capacity only within the last few years."
She says a forensic anthropologist also comes in to look at different traits.
"For example, is this a male or female? Is this a large-statured person? A small-statured person? ...And look for any evidence of disease or trauma that may account for a cause of death, and a manner of death."
Dr. Clark says it's not always possible, but their goal is to complete an investigation in 30 to 45 days.
She's been in the field since 1989, and Chief Medical Examiner and Coroner for Washoe County since 2007. She says aside from using DNA evidence, there hasn't been much that's changed with the techniques to identify remains.
"A lot of the things are the same. It's good police work, good scientific work, good autopsy practice, good utilization of sub-specialties within the forensic sciences. Much of it is identical to what we've done in the past. The only thing that's changed fairly dramatically within the past 35 years or so would be the utilization of DNA evidence."
Finally, we asked Dr. Clark what got her into forensic pathology.
"I meandered into this field and had not specifically selected it. It was in my 4th year of elective medical school rotations that I participated in a forensic pathology rotation in New Mexico, where they have a state medical examiner's office, and I saw my first few cases and was very intrigued and have never regretted going into this field."
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